I don’t read the real splatter-plunk horror stories. I need the horrific things that happen in a novel to have a good reason to be there, primarily, to help make the situation or the motivation of the characters involved clearer. One particular scene, early on in Jezebel, includes some fairly graphic, but not gratuitous, gore. I use this scene to set up the horror—to tell readers “this is what could happen to the protagonist, his family and his ones he loves.” It establishes risk and helps with future suspense scenes. It gives the characters a reason to fear, and readers a reason to feel that fear once they’ve connected with the characters, as well.
For a truly good scare—the type of horror that stays with you and makes you check the doors and windows after you’ve set the book down and are heading for bed—there are at least five very important elements that the writer must deal with.
- Setup, seeding and planting information. This is all about starting the suspense early—giving readers questions about, or reasons to recall, objects in scenes and information given in conversations or observations. By planting information in early scenes that become important in future ones, the writer will help avoid the scare and gore scenes from seeming coincidental.
- Character depth (three dimensional, sympathetic characters with a past, present and future). Readers need to identify with and find empathy for the main characters of any good story. Generally, the best characters are ordinary people who have a past that in some way haunts them, a present with personal challenges, and hopes for a brighter future. Sometimes, they’re more interesting if they have an unusual talent or interest, and it’s usually good to give them a deep passion about something. Once these things are established, the characters seem more real, readers begin to identify with them, have empathy with them, and begin to really care for them. That’s the ideal time to ramp up the danger and put these characters in jeopardy—a situation that seems impossible for them to escape from alive. I find it fun for the potential victim to use her 3D depth by finding something from her past to draw on in order to make the decisions she makes in the present. Possibly, this part of her past helps her win out over the antagonist and survive the day. Regardless, a good horror story will cause the reader to expect the unexpected on every page.
- High stakes and risk. The potential results of the horror must be the ultimate price—death.
- Suspense. Writing in a way that draws out the drama, gives readers the questions “what will happen next?” and “will she live through this?” is a critical element. Having a scary face just suddenly appear in a dark window has little shock value. Having the soon-to-be victim go slowly to the window, curious about at a piece of cloth blowing in the stormy night from a bare tree limb just outside—then having the killer’s face appear in the lightning, albeit cliché, is going to have much more shock value because readers have more time to consider the risk and the potential for something bad happening. They are suspended in concern for what will happen next. Using the ol’ red herring can add to the dramatic question, as well, misdirecting readers without overtly manipulating them. Then, there’s false suspense, where the buildup of suspense in a particular scene is ultimately unjustified and nothing horrific happens. If a face doesn’t always appear in the lightning outside the window, it’s much more of a scare when it finally does. Like in Jaws, if everyone who got in the water got eaten, there would be little suspense, and little entertainment value to the book or the movie. But the writer must remember to be careful not to over use these storytelling tools, like that “ol’ red herring”—if overused, may stink up the story.
- Vivid settings. Another very critical horror-story element is the use of imagery in depicting the spooky, danger-filled settings. Of course I’m talking about vivid descriptions of a dark night, fog or mist, woods, old dilapidated house, wind, storm with thunder and lightning, etc. The way these setting elements are described are important to building tension and suspense.
There are a number of other tools and elements that help make a good horror story better, but when these five critical horror-story elements are used effectively, the story is more easily transformed from just another splatter-plunk horror story where gore and body count seem to be the goals, to a deeper, more psychological and entertaining scare—one that readers will remember and are more likely to revisit and recommend to others.
Bloggers, how about giving me your comments; what makes a good scare for you?
You can tweet me at www.Twitter.com/gordonkessler, friend me at www.Facebook.com/gordonkessler1 and link with me at www.LinkedIn.com/in/gordonkessler. And you can always find my books at any online bookstore, including Amazon, B&N, iBooks, etc. All three of my thrillers are currently on sale in eBook formats for only $.99—trying to get those sales numbers soaring! Of course, you can find them in traditional paperback and hardcover at reasonable prices, as well.
One more plug for one of my books: Novel Writing Made Simple is an excellent resource for both the beginning and seasoned novelist, as well. You can find the spiral bound and paperback on Amazon, or there’s even an eBook version you can download from iBooks
Thanks again for hosting me on your wonderful blog! I hope you and all your bloggers have a really frightening and fun Halloween!
About The Author
Gordon A Kessler is a former US Marine parachutist, recon scout, and Super Squad team leader, with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He is a Master Instructor for Johnson County Community College, National Academy of Railroad Sciences, and the BNSF Railway. He has taught novel writing for Butler County Community College, English Composition for Hutchinson Junior College and has previously indie-published the thriller novels Brainstorm and Dead Reckoning, and a book about the novel-writing craft, Novel Writing Made Simple.
He is a founder and current president of the Kansas Writers Association and tries to stay connected to writers and the writing industry by doing speaking engagements at writers conferences and for writers organizations, and does his own “The Storyteller” seminar in Wichita, Lincoln (Nebraska), Kansas City, and other Midwestern cities based on his Novel Writing Made Simple book.
His websites, http://www.WritersMatrix.com and http://www.IndieWritersAlliance are landing pages for writers to help them in their writing endeavors. His author website is http://www.GordonKessler.com .
Sleep lightly tonight…
A madman has come to town seeking a diabolical revenge and large dogs begin attacking their masters for no apparent reason and with heinous results.
Animal Control Director Tony Parker must find out why and stop the murderous attacks. Meanwhile, Jezebel, a huge black Great Dane has killed her master and is loose, terrorizing the city and stalking Parker and his family. Parker and Sarah Hill, his beautiful and seductive young assistant, attempt to unravel the mystery and stop the terrible carnage while dealing with their own demons and lusty desires.
The attacks must be stopped. Jezebel must be found-and soon, you see–there is one other complication. Parker seems to have come down with an annoying little virus. No, it’s not one of those irritating summer colds. It’s certain death.
She’s a murderess, huge and black as a hell-bound night.
Beware. Jezebel is on the loose!
Excerpt from Gordon Kessler’s Jezebel
Hill went to the front door and watched Chin’s van make a U-turn at the corner and head down the street. The headlights flashed in Hill’s face, momentarily blinding her. She winced. The light burned her already blood-shot, weary eyes.
A silent moment passed before a sound came from outside. The back yard. Scratching. Something was climbing over the fence.
The rifle. It was still next to the back door. Hill moved quickly toward the kitchen. As she made it to the hall, the dog port began to open. Hill stepped to the side, out of sight, before seeing what was coming through.
She trembled, backing up to the wall next to the large window that was painted shut. She could run for the door, but by the time she reached it, she’d be seen. No way out. Hide. Where? There was no place. Behind the sheer curtain, maybe. In the dark, she might not be seen if she was quiet and didn’t move.
She pulled the curtain around her. She could see through it, but it made the already dim room even dimmer. The blowing fan was the only noise. Nothing moved except the oscillating shadows of the fan blades beating the stale air through the room. The green flash of the clock on the CD player caused an eerie, strobing light.
A dark shape slowly emerged from the hallway and moved into the room. Large. Huge. Black.
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